WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—The stars seemed to be aligning for Duke in its first Final Four appearance since 2012 less than 100 miles from home, but the Blue Devils could not hold off the hottest team in the nation on the singles courts.
No. 3 seed Duke lost to 15th-seeded Stanford 4-2 at Wake Forest Tennis Center in Monday morning’s national semifinal matchup. The Blue Devils hung on to win a dramatic doubles point, but got blitzed in straight sets in three singles matches before No. 93 Caroline Lampl outlasted Duke’s Kaitlyn McCarthy in three sets to eliminate the Blue Devils.
The underseeded Cardinal have not lost since their No. 2 singles player Melissa Lord—ranked No. 40 nationally—returned from an injury midway through the season, and they have defeated three top-seven seeds in Winston-Salem en route to their third straight appearance in the championship match.
“Nothing really fazes [Stanford.] The seeding doesn’t faze them. The conditions don’t faze them. They’re so mentally tough,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We’ve done a really good job this year after the doubles point of coming out and winning a quick singles match, and we just weren’t able to do that.”
The Blue Devils (27-4) jumped out to an early lead on all three doubles courts before nearly letting the point slip away. No. 9 juniors McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin wrapped up a quick 6-3 win on Court 1, but No. 6 Samantha Harris and Kelly Chen lost five straight games after leading 3-0 and fell 6-4.
That left it up to Court 3, where sophomore Meible Chi and freshman Hannah Zhao led 5-1, but lost seven potential clinching points to help Stanford (23-3) pull even at 5-5. Chi double faulted when Duke had a chance to win the set, and Stanford’s duo lost the first three points of the next game before winning four straight with their backs against the wall to tie it up.
The Blue Devils staved off two break points in the next game on Zhao’s serve to take the lead back, and they clinched the set and the doubles point when Stanford sent a lob just long to seal the 7-5 nail-biter.
“We definitely had some opportunities to close out the doubles a little bit earlier, but on the changeovers, they were fine, they were focused,” Ashworth said. “There was never any hanging of their head or anything like that, so I thought that they did a great job coming back, because that could have got away from them really quick.”
Duke won three of the six first sets in singles to put itself in position to close out the match with three more victories, but the Cardinal’s points were coming more easily, and they quickly closed out the three matches which they led. No. 96 Janice Shin beat No. 84 Hamlin 6-1, 6-1 on Court 5, Emma Higuchi beat Zhao 6-4, 6-0 on Court 6 and Lord dominated a second-set tiebreaker to beat No. 55 Chi 6-2, 7-6(0), giving Stanford a 3-1 lead and leaving the Blue Devils with no margin for error.
In the final dual match of her career, No. 6 Harris battled through a marathon second set to give Duke its first singles win by a score of 6-2, 7-6(3) against No. 15 Michaela Gordon.
“I’m proud of our senior leadership. I thought Sam [Harris] was great for us all year, on the court, off the court,” Ashworth said. “It’s a great thing if your hardest worker is your best player, and she’s definitely set the tone for that.”
But McCarthy and No. 28 Chen both dropped their second sets after winning the first, and McCarthy quickly fell into a hole in the third set, struggling on her serve. Lampl broke the junior Blue Devil in all four of her service games in the decisive set, as McCarthy committed back-to-back double faults to fall behind 1-5 and then hit shots into the net on the last three points of the match, losing 6-2, 3-6, 2-6.
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“When Kaitlyn’s playing her best, she’s swinging, and swinging at her serve, and when the moment gets big, sometimes she kind of retreats a little bit, but that’s something that she’s done a much better job of,” Ashworth said. “It’s something that we just have to work on with her and keep working on. She’s so talented and hits such a clean ball that she’s got to just be aggressive in big moments.”
Chen’s third set was left unfinished at 3-4, but the freshman will return to the court along with Harris and Chi for the individual singles tournament beginning Wednesday. Duke’s top two doubles duos—Harris and Chen, and McCarthy and Hamlin—will also compete in the NCAA doubles tournament starting Thursday.
The draws for those competitions will be released after Tuesday’s national championship between Stanford and top-seeded Vanderbilt.
Looking ahead to next season, the Blue Devils will return everyone in their starting lineup except Harris, and their head coach is excited for what is to come.
“Our program is in a great spot. We’re hungry. This is where we want to be,” Ashworth said. “When I started at Duke 20-something years ago, we went to a couple of Final Fours right away and you think, ‘Okay, this is easy, we’re going to do this all the time,’ and it’s so hard now with the level and the depth of teams, with the influx of the foreign players, so it’s great to be back in this position and give ourselves a chance. That’s all we can ask for, is a chance.”